When St. Paul wrote these words, Paul DeHart notes, the world was governed by an emperor whose gospel (evangelium) proclaimed peace (pax) to all men, if they would only give allegiance (fides) to their lord and savior: Caesar.
From its beginnings, Christianity was an affront to a political order that refused not only to separate church and state, but even to distinguish them. The famed “tolerance” of religious diversity in ancient Rome came with a price: any cult could be approved by imperial officials, so long as it submitted to their terms, including that of emperor worship.
When “Christians, like Socrates in ancient democratic Athens, . . . refused to acknowledge the empire’s gods,” they threatened “the Roman insistence upon undivided loyalty” to the state.
Christians offended Roman beliefs not only by positing a heavenly city beyond this earthly one. The very word they chose to describe their community—ecclesia—derives from the Greek word for a deliberative assembly possessing legislative, electoral, or judicial powers.
By constituting assemblies governed by the laws of a heavenly Lord and Savior, “Christianity established a city within the city.” This earthly institution, the Church, showed due respect for the secular jurisdiction of civil authorities, but insisted on its own supremacy in matters affecting eternal salvation: including questions of practical faith and morals.
As DeHart warns, major theorists of the modern state explicitly sought to restore state supremacy over religion. Despite our Constitution’s explicit protection of “the free exercise of religion,” our Attorney General notes, there is a concerted effort today to conscript governmental powers into the service of a militant secularism, which attempts “to force religious people and entities to subscribe to practices and policies that are antithetical to their faith.”
The U.S. Constitution alludes to but does not formally recognize a Church. As Tocqueville observes, however, it grants earthly sovereignty to the people. In Tocqueville’s day, the people knew themselves to be sovereign, and (excepting their own biases) did not permit their government to violate the tenets of their faith.
Do the American people today know their own sovereignty? And are they willing to exercise it in obedience to the one Lord whose authority encompasses both heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18)?
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